Love is both the question and the answer in this lyrical novel by one of Israel’s best-selling authors. Returning to her hometown as an adult, Rivi Shenhar discovers a collection of her old diaries—impassioned, plaintive journals she addressed to Anne Frank while growing up in Israel in the 1970s. Reading them takes her back to the isolated, lonely girl she was, living alone with a distant mother, but also to the love affair that changed her life.
When her young literature teacher provides an outlet for Rivi’s frustrations, she never imagines that she will fall in love—or that such a turbulent, forbidden relationship could last so long, or become so intimate and erotically charged. Rivi’s transformation from awkward child to confident woman—and writer—is deftly handled, in “metaphoric language that is amazingly sensuous and precise” (Globes).
About the Author
Dalya Bilu is a well-known translator of Hebrew literature and has translated the works of Zeruya Shalev, A.B.Yehoshua, Yaakov Shabtai, Aharon Appelfeld, Judith Katzir, Batia Gur and more. She has been awarded the Israel Culture and Education Ministry Prize for Translation, the Times Literary Supplement Prize and the Jewish Book Council Award for Hebrew-English Translation.
Read an Excerpt
Let Me Begin
After it was all over I walked down the dirt track leading from the new cemetery to the old cemetery, leaving behind my back the mountain with the low white houses of the village of Kaba-beer planted on its summit, huddled in the shade of the stone mosque with its chalky dome and two twin minarets. Before, when the stretcher tilted sideways and your body wrapped in white slid into the pit, I opened my eyes wide and forced them to look. Afterwards they wandered to the line of the mountain ridge, trembling against the background of the silvery porcelain sky of early autumn. Yes, you had come home, to the sea and the Carmel mountain you loved, your view from now on.
I parted from your son last, briefly touching his clammy, lifeless hand, avoiding his eyes, and he nodded with a kind of mechanical pecking motion, his two blue beetles blank as ever. What did he feel? What did he understand? Only twenty-two years old, and already his fair hair was growing thin, and his body was stooped as if he bore the weight of a lifetime on his shoulders. A boy with autistic traits, a strange, alien child, a retarded infant robbed of his mother, who had seen far more than he should have; a fetus whose little body was crushed under that heavy burden and whose legs kicked in protest, a spermatozoon that met an egg in a little hotel in Paris, a misconceived idea.
A hand light as a wing came to rest on my shoulder. I turned my head to the tall woman with the gray hair cropped short in a boyish haircut, and in front of my eyes the slender curly-haired girl of once upon a time emerged, with the high cheekbones and the two clear scraps of sky above them, and the beaky nose, which had now turned red. In her hand she held a bunch of wildflowers. "I've just arrived, I'm so sorry I'm late," panted Osnat, blowing her nose on a white tissue.
"It was the same as it always is," the words fell heavily out of my mouth.
"But she wasn't like anyone else," her eyes stared at me in surprise.
"No, she was completely herself."
"Did you speak?" she wanted to know. "Did they ask you to say something?"
"They didn't ask. I read a poem."
"Did he say Kaddish?"
"He stammered something, in an American accent, Yoel helped him."
"I'll go and say hello to them and give her the flowers."
"They're lovely. She would have liked them," I said, and remembered another bunch, that you gave to Osnat, your best friend, on her fifteenth birthday, after not speaking for months, and the two scraps of sky opened up to you then in huge delight.
"Did you come by car?" she asked. "You can drive back to Tel Aviv with me. You live in Tel Aviv now, don't you?"
"Yes, but I'm staying here. I have a few ends to tie."
"That too," I nodded, remembering our family plot in the old cemetery, my grandmother and grandfather under one stone, my mother by herself, between them and the path.
"I read somewhere that you had a daughter," said Osnat.
"In the meantime I've had another one. Carmel will be eleven, and Noga's two. And you?"
"My children are already grown up," she smiled. "Tamar's studying art in New York, and Roi is in the army."
The only time I saw her she wasn't planning to get married. When was it? The summer of seventy-nine, twenty-two years ago.
"Are you writing something new for us?" she asked. "I've read all your books, they always take me back to Mount Carmel, with the wind and the cyclamens and the pinecones."
"Lately I've mainly been erasing," I apologized. Once, when I was young, my words were quicker and wiser than I was. With the passing of the years I've gained in wisdom and maturity, while the words, tired and bewildered, trail behind.
Suddenly she embraced me. "You should write about her," she whispered in my ear, "about the two of you."
"Yes," I hesitated, "my memory is covered with white spots. I have to find the diary I wrote then. It's buried somewhere."
Yes, that's where I'll go, to the disaster area, to the place where the fire flower was born and where it was buried alive. I'll go down to the wadi, to our dwarf pine, and look for the hiding place under the flat rock, and dig for the notebooks, even though there's almost no chance of finding them after twenty rainy winters. Now that your body's resting in the earth I'm free to resurrect those years that I've never written about, or spoken about to almost anyone. I myself could hardly believe that they were what they were, that the two of us were what we were, and I buried them deep within me and I knew that it was forbidden to wake them up.
"Will you call me, Rivi? I'm in the phone book. Let's meet in some cafe?" Osnat's hands were holding my shoulders, and the scraps of sky, which time had not dulled, examined my face sorrowfully. "That time when we met you were still really a child. How time laughs at us, I can't believe that I'm already fifty."
"I'll call," I said, and I knew that she too knew that I wouldn't.
Osnat stroked my arm as if to console me, and I looked at her ungainly figure walking down the path and kneeling next to the mound of earth covered with stones and flowers, surmounted by a little wooden sign with your name on it.
The gate to the old cemetery is open. I pass under the ornamental inscription. "Righteousness shall go before him." The iron letters leave no room for argument. The black funeral board is empty, with chalk marks, as if wiped by a tired teacher's hand at the end of the day. I climb the asphalt path, which in recent years has become my way home, and here they are, the three of them, resting in the shade of the cypress tree; Grandma and Grandpa under one marble slab, above them the high, broad headstone in "natural" stone, with the inscription in elongated, rather fancy letters, "Lipkin," and underneath it the names Emanuel on the right and Rivka, who waited for him almost thirty years alone under the stone, on the left. Mother next to them in a single grave inclining slightly towards theirs, like a little girl creeping into her parents' bed after having a nightmare, and they moved a little to give her room.
Her headstone is identical to theirs, and the letters too; at the top only the first name, Carmela, like the notice on door of my daughter's room, "Carmel's room," and below, in smaller letters, "Shenhar, born Lipkin."
For eleven years we've been coming here every 24th of Nisan — Oren, Noam, and I. I arrive first and sit down on her cold stone, leaning my back against the headstone and letting the wind cool my face burning in the khamsin. It's pleasant here, in the shade. Nowhere else have I heard the birds sing like this, in real joy. In front of my eyes is the back of the Schwartzbergs' headstone, polished black marble, in which every year I see my changing reflection: long hair, short hair, brown, blond, highlights, sunglasses, prescription glasses, contact lenses, thinner, fatter, twice pregnant, age spots on my arms and face. Only like this, with my body very close to what remains of her body, I relax and feel at peace. Without words I tell her what's happened to me, only the important things, so as not to disturb her rest; you know, Mother, I got married, you have a granddaughter, I wrote a book and another book, you have another granddaughter.
Once life stuck to me, people fell in love with me, I fell in love, my heart raced to the edge of the abyss and crashed, again and again, like James Dean's red racing car. In recent years nothing sticks to me, I do everything with my own hands, my family, my books. Today life no longer succeeds in surprising me, only death. It arrives at unexpected times and gathers to itself the people I loved: Grandfather Emanuel, Mother, Aunt Tehiya, and now you too.
When Oren and Noam arrive — two tall serious men who were once my little brothers — I stand up, remove the cellophane paper from the flowers I bought in Tel Aviv and dragged with me in the train, and put them down on your single bed. A few of them I scatter on Grandma and Grandpa's double marble blanket. For long moments we stand around her in silence, just the three of us, we don't need anyone else, each of us with his own account to settle, the account of the anger and the pity, the insult and the forgiveness, the guilt and the atonement. Each of us with his love. When the ritual is over, we leave and go to the beach and sit in one of the beachfront restaurants to eat hummus and drink beer, and talk about our children and our work, and sometimes also about her.
But today is the sixteenth of Elul, the fourth of September two thousand and one, the beginning of autumn. I came here alone, to inform you of her death; you know, Mother, the woman you detested so violently is already under the ground as well, I'm the only one left above it, at long last free of both of you.
But what will I do with this freedom, I think in alarm, what will I do here alone, and suddenly I long to curl up next to Mother, in the narrow space between her and the path. I look around me; most of the graves next to the path are double, crowding against the curbstone, and perhaps there's room for an extra plot here too, and if it's free maybe I'll acquire it. Carmel and Noga will enjoy coming here, sitting on top of my deteriorating body in the shade of the cypress tree and listening to the birdsong.
Decisively I stride to the gatekeeper's little whitewashed booth and knock on the door. An elderly man opens it, a white kaftan, black skullcap, wispy gray beard.
"I want to inquire about purchasing a plot."
"Who for? "
"For you?" He examines me suspiciously. "How old are you, if I may ask."
"Thirty-eight?" he repeats in astonishment. "Sick, God forbid?"
"No, not yet, it's just that my family are buried here, and I thought of buying next to them ... so I'll have it, you know, for any eventuality."
"Ah," his face clears in a smile, "come in, come in, what's the section and plot?"
I squeeze into the tiny office, where the air is thick with sour sweat, and recite the numbers of the plot and section.
The gatekeeper opens a long ledger with a black cover, reminiscent of a class attendance book, and turns the pages.
"Yes, I see there's a place here, next to the deceased Shenhar, a place reserved for a woman."
"Why for a woman?" I wonder.
"A strange man is not buried next to a woman, only her husband is permitted." He gives me a rebuking look.
"Yes, that's logical," I try to placate him. A strange man buried next to a woman is shocking licentiousness. And since both my mother's husbands are married to other women, it's hard to imagine that either one of them will want to acquire the plot and lie next to her for eternity. No, this has to be my plot.
"Carmela Shenhar is my mother, of blessed memory," I confess to soften his heart, "how much will it cost me to purchase the plot next to her?"
"It's written here," he points to the modest cardboard notice hanging on the wall behind him, "a plot in the old part, twelve thousand, a plot in the pantheon — twenty." I look closely at the notice, crooked handwritten letters, like an ice cream stall, small cone — twelve shekels, big cone — twenty.
"Where's the pantheon?"
"Where your late mother is, may she rest in peace," he explains while his long fingers play with his beard, "the plots close to the entrance. The mayor Abba Houshi is buried there, Almogi the head of the Labor Council, all the old leaders."
For years I've been coming here, and I didn't know that my grandparents and my mother were buried in the pantheon. A family of gods. Zeus, Hera, and Aphrodite. Twenty thousand shekels for the right to be buried in spitting distance of Abba Houshi.
"Too dear," I say as if I'm bargaining for a secondhand car.
"That's the situation, there are hardly any plots left here. Today people are buried only in the new cemetery."
But there are no trees in the new cemetery, I implore him in my heart, it's all exposed and glaring in the sun, and I want to be here, in the old one, to curl up next to my mother in the shade of the cypress trees. And what about the new computer I was planning to buy, and the laser operation to correct my vision, and the new bed for Carmel?
"You know what," the gatekeeper softens, "I'll write your phone number down here, and if anyone wants to buy the plot next to the deceased, may she rest in peace, I'll get in touch with you first."
"Thank you," I smile at him in relief, "you've been very helpful."
I walk down the path, pass the water fountain, and emerge on the road, almost tempted to raise my hand and hitch a ride, like years ago, when Racheli and I would return from the sea with salty loofah hair, skipping barefoot from the shade of the trash can to the shade of the bus stop, with our sandals dangling from our jeans bags and the pavement burning under our feet like life itself.
A taxi stops next to me, and I open the door and climb into the air-conditioned interior. "To the Carmel Center, please, to Panorama Street."
The landscape here hasn't changed; like a child's drawing, tree and earth, sun and sky, but where is the house with the red roof and the blue door and the two windows open like eyes, and the chimney with the curls of smoke? In its place there's a white space on the page.
Our two-storied childhood home in the pine stand on the corner of George Eliot and Panorama Streets we sold years ago to a contractor who wiped it off the face of the earth together with the pine trees, and replaced it with a block of luxury apartments overlooking the view of the bay. With the money we received we built three other houses, to make a new life for ourselves in them. In my new house I sew and patch, stitching Mommy to Daddy, Daddy to Carmel, Carmel to Noga, Noga to Mommy, over and over again, day after day, night after night, hour after hour, diligently, bleary-eyed, with the pricked fingers of two left hands, just so it won't come unraveled.
The bay sticks out a giant tongue of sea at me, pierced with earrings in the shape of ships, and I turn my back to it and cross the road, and go on walking up the hill to the school, panting, my heart pounding. The blue iron gate gapes and a few boys with peroxide spikes burst out of it. Colored tank tops expose tattooed biceps. A crowd of older boys and girls, twelfth graders presumably, cluster around a fancy motorbike, smoking and laughing. And here are two girls of fourteen or fifteen, one fair and slender with a Slavic face, and the other short and suntanned, an orange tank top clinging tightly to little breasts that touch your heart, exposing a flat, smooth chocolate stomach. What children they are, I marvel to myself, soon Carmel will look like them, how is it possible that I was like them then, so very very young.
I wait a little longer, perhaps a little girl will come out of the gate in a sky-blue uniform shirt, with two braids and glasses in square plastic frames, and at her side her blue-eyed friend, whose wheaten hair reaches to under her ears, and who address each other in the male gender; and perhaps Galya the nature study teacher will come past, or Miss Hardona the history teacher, or perhaps Hourgi the headmaster, whose name I saw in the newspaper two years ago, in a notice announcing his death; and perhaps coming towards me I'll see a young teacher with freckles and a bronze-colored ponytail, and she'll smile at me with burning brown eyes, and climb up the hill to an eggplant-colored Mini Minor. But it's late now, past two o'clock, and the school day is over.
I drag my heavy feet away from there and go on climbing up Wedgewood Street, passing the post office, which has been redecorated in red and white, resisting the temptation to climb the steps and see if my phone booth, my little-house-in-the-post-office for two years, is still there. Today everybody has a cell phone. I pass Max's stationery store, where I once bought the second notebook of my diary, the one with the photo of Mike Brandt on the cover. In those days, at the beginning of the school year, the stationer's would be crowded with children, but now it's no longer there, replaced by a fashionable shoe store. Koestler's cake shop is still here, on the corner of President Avenue and, as then, it breathes aromas of chocolate and cinnamon into my nose. I peek into the old pharmacy next door, expecting to see the high wooden cabinets with the glass doors enclosing pale yellow potbellied bottles of powders with labels lettered in black Latin, but the pharmacy has refurbished its appearance and its smell, and it now resembles many others of its kind. I cross the street and look over the fence at the wadi I would slide down to the scouts' den, a little girl in a khaki uniform and a blue tie, her hands clutching at bushes and her fingers unwittingly crushing a yellow broom flower, or the leaf of a mastic tree.
At the pedestrian crossing opposite the gas station I stop and wait for the green traffic light. Even though the street is empty of cars the people stand and wait for the light to change, not like in Tel Aviv, where I usually wait alone, betraying my Haifa origins. Afterwards I walk past the blank gray building of the auditorium, on whose steps we would sit barefoot, Racheli and I, stirred to the depths by Bergman's Persona or Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which we had seen in the basement Cinematheque.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dearest Anne"
Copyright © 2003 Judith Katzir.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
First Notebook: Let Me Begin,
Second Notebook: Hidden on the Ocean Floor,
Third Notebook: Between Mountain and Sea,
Fourth Notebook: The Hiding Place Inside the Hiding Place,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was very eleuently written. I love how the author uses her words in a very poetic fashin. As the cover says it is about a young girl who has a romance with a teacher at the girl's middle school. I was uncomfortable throughout the book because at my current age of 24 I couldn't imagine falling in love with someone at the age of 14. I was hoping this uncomfortableness wouldn't be left unresolved and it wasn't. The author explored how those feelings were felt by the young girl as she grew up and described the different stages of her life through the glasses of the romance and her further encounters with her much older lover.
Wonderful writing style, great imagery, a life-long story of human relationship, with some conclusions about the important values in life.